Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We Are Not Killer Apes!

A while back, I read (and blogged about) a quote from Robert Ardry about how humans are killer apes. The quote eloquently marvels at our amazing capacity for compassion, given that we come out of such a powerful competitive instinct in the wild.

Well, as I am learning from reading The Compassionate Instinct, while we are killer apes, we are also so much more than that. Yes, there are violent tendencies that are within our fundamental nature, but there is also the intense capacity for compassion, gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness, which appears to be just as ubiquitous and fundamental to our nature as the unsavory elements of our character. 


A series of essays culled from the pages of Greater Good magazineThe Compassionate Instinct does a great job of making even the most hardened cynic feel that there's hope for us to overcome our inherent tendencies toward greed and violence. 


Primates Show Us the Way
For example, studies have shown that in a situation where more violent and less violent primates are combined together into one social group, instead of bullying the less violent primates, the more violent primates actually begin adopting the more peaceful attitudes! 


Even more amazing (though more technical), this isn't just mimicry. The primates use different "reconciliation" behavior ... it's just that the violent primates use their species' own reconciliation behavior more frequently than they did prior to being socially mixed with the less violent species. They actually integrate the more peaceful lifestyle into their species' own behavior. Other studies have shown that these sort of effects are relatively long-lasting, even when the social situation that created them is removed. 


Even when there is a genetic explanation for this drift toward non-violence (for example, the more violent members of a society die off), the more peaceful effects continue to last as new outsiders join the less violent group. The environmental factors appear to largely supersede the possible genetic tendencies toward violence.

In another study, it was shown that specific reactions on the part of female primates to violent male behavior can be changed very quickly. A species where the females respond to violence by reconciliation ("smooth talking") the men and one where the females respond by cowering had their females swapped. Within an hour, the females of each species learned that their life-long behavior pattern did not work in this new environment, and they adapted to the behavior suited to the other species.

This demonstrates the profound way that the environmental influences our behavior, both for better and worse. In fact, the majority of the book is devoted to essays on how to modify our own environments - at home, at work, and in government - to cultivate more virtuous reactions.

The Troubling Act of Killing Humans
Even among humans, who for a long time were thought to be the only animals that killed their own kind (it isn't true, we now know - other primate species also exercise what can only be deemed warfare), it's amazing to discover how little we like killing. In a World War II study, it was learned that only about 20% of soldiers on the front line of a combat situation actually used their weapons with the intent to kill any of the enemy. The others focused on rescuing wounded comrades or completing a mission objective, or just fired wide or high.

In fact, simulations of historical battles have shown that these percentages appear to be consistent with them as well. If 100% of the soldiers involved had actually been firing with the intent to kill the enemy, the simulations indicate that the body counts should have been much higher than they were. It seems that among even soldiers, there has always been an ingrained desire not to kill others. (I say "even soldiers" not to imply that they are less human or that their temperament lends itself more readily to killing, but just that they are the one class that we think of as most capable of killing others, even if only by the life-threatening situations they find themselves in as part of their occupation, where the killing of others would seem to be the most permissible.)

The problem, as outlined by Lt. Col. David Grossman, is that since World War II the military has learned how to desensitize soldiers from this instinct, so that by Vietnam our soldiers had a combat engagement rate of as high as 95%. He attributes this high rate of killing as the reason why so many soldiers suffer from negative psychological effects (such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in Vietnam and even later conflicts - because humans have a natural aversion to killing, and while we may condition it out of them long enough for them to perform their job on the battlefield, the aversion will show up for many in the form of negative psychological effects.

Grossman (who taught psychology at West Point and authored On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society) is hopeful, because while the mind is averse to killing it is also highly flexible and resilient. Many soldiers will not develop any psychological problems, and the ones who are psychologically wounded by killing on the battlefield have many options for help. With the proper treatment, he believes that these wounded soldiers can be healed of the cognitive dissonance that they feel at having been trained to kill in a way that other soldiers in civilized history have not been.

Creating Joy
It seems appropriate to end this discussion with a quote from Alfred Egendorf, author of Healing from the War: Trauma and Transformation after Vietnam (emphasis mine):

Only together will we create a culture that supersedes the cycles of battle and retreat - not through our fear of war but through mastering a superior way to live.

The seed of this culture is the determination within individuals, and then small groups and communities, to devote our lives to the greatest vision of all time: not to wait for a savior one day to deliver us; not to wait for a government to pass truly just laws; not to wait for a revolution to right the wrongs of a cruel world; and not to mount a crusade to overpower some distant source of evil beyond ourselves. Each of us, singly and with all the others, is answerable for creating joy through the way our lives unfold, here and now. And once this purpose becomes primary, we can turn to the endless job of bringing well-being to others, justice and integrity to our government, and instituting constructive programs for change here and elsewhere. When inspired in this way, we don't have to wait for the final outcome before we're nourished. There is no finer way to live or die.
As this project unfolds, I am learning, if anything, that this purpose does need to be primary. Creating joy in our lives, and the lives of others, is the one thing that for which we are answerable - to ourselves, to others, to our society, and to any higher power that may exist out there. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.